Bourbon Penn 7

Consumer Testing

by John Greenwood

Already I have muddled it all. Like my mother's before me, my brain is sluggish, and protracted thought hastens torpor. My father always told me to begin at the beginning, though it did him no good. Still, the enumeration of the jars of olives tires me, and I cannot bring myself to consider any other place to begin.

I should have listened to the advice of my mother and father. My father's motto was "Stick with what you know." My mother's motto (though she would have not described it as such) was "No good will come of it." Neither was well expressed nor, had they been better expressed, would have exposed profundities. I never knew what my parents meant by these cautions, and as I entered puberty, I began to suspect that they themselves did not know what they meant. "Stick to what you know" and "No good will come of it" were simply what I could expect my father and mother to say, familiar sounds that were a comfort to my unsprightly mind, like the hourly chime of the clock on the mantelpiece. As guides for the safe conduct of life, these mottoes had little to recommend them (both parents died). Nevertheless, with barely a sound brain between the three of us, these maxims were all we had for philosophy, and we made what use of them we could. "The man who has no shoes must wear his slippers in the street," was another one of my father's sayings, although he owned shoes and, in my befogged memory, never had reason to leave the house. It would be a comfort to say that I hold by their maxims still. I have not held by them, but now that it is too late to make amends, at least I know that I should have held by them.

I cannot remember how long it has been since the neighbours started throwing unwanted items of this and that over the wall into our vegetable garden. They must have been doing it when my benighted mother and father were still alive, because I can recall my father bringing some rusty cans in from the garden. My mother did not like the look of them and lost no time in telling him that no good would come of them. My father filled the cans with earth from the garden and compost from other sources, and he lined the windowsills with them. Herbs sprouted: first chives, then parsley. I think there were no others. If there was basil, then it wilted, but I think there was no basil. Again, my flaccid brain has led me astray.

"This and that" requires elucidation. In addition to rusted cans: unrusted cans, half-empty bottles, empty bottles, fouled disposable diapers, fouled reusable diapers, oddments of cloth, shoes, bald car tyres, leftovers, thumb tacks, the cadaver of a dog, mapping pins, roofing nails, safety pins (attached to diapers). Some of these (shoes, cloth, pins) my father made use of as he had used the rusting tins, others (diapers, dead dog) he did not. An impetuous youth, I decried the dead dog and urged my parents to remonstrate. My arguments were fourfold: unpleasant odour; maggots; unsightly appearance; lastly, crucially, spoiled potato plants. But my father's logic was unanswerable: if the neighbours unprovoked were capable of dead dogs today, what, after remonstrations, tomorrow? I could not imagine. Whoever was behind the dogs and diapers, we never saw them. "We keep ourselves to ourselves," was another of Father's maxims apposite here. My mother's "No good will come of it" had universal application.

Were they still alive, my luckless parents would be sunk in shame at the catastrophes I have brought down, the olives the culmination. I have neither stuck to what I knew, nor kept myself to myself. Incontrovertibly, no good has come of it. But they are no longer alive to witness the olives, and for that I must be grateful. For twenty years I have slept in their bed, drank from their cups, spoken their words, worn their faces. For a corresponding period, they have slept beneath the potatoes, drank groundwater, spoken worms, worn dirt. A kinder fate than to see their only child helpless before the olives, and the sorry road to the olives, after all they have done for me.

The appearance of useful and useless items in the vegetable garden continued after I had buried my parents there. The frequency of items of this and that was neither regular nor irregular. There were periods of regularity, such as: every other Thursday two bin liners full of foil cartons smeared with Indian food, and every three months a large metal drum leaking rancid vegetable oil. Or else: daily, a certain quantity of cigarette butts. Or else: annually, a certain quantity of broken crockery. Like clockwork, all these phenomena of an apparently regular nature, at a certain time, ceased. Unlike clockwork, they were regular only very approximately.

As a child, I made the mistake of speculating on the source of these manifestations. For years I believed with fervour, if I was capable of fervour, that here was the work of several parties, occupying the neighbouring property sequentially. This party, who discards cider bottles every Wednesday, is replaced after a certain quantity of years by another who discards vodka bottles on roughly alternate Fridays.

Such futile speculations further enfeebled my fragile intellect, and I was instructed to keep in mind the lesson of the pet destroyed by an abstract noun. My mother, or it may have been my father, or else a more peripheral relative, puzzled me greatly with their insistence on this axiom. I was not constituted to withstand puzzlement — fits and bedwetting were the sequels. I was advised to forget the cat, its curiosity, and its unnatural demise. As my mother very rightly told me, "No good can come of it." Curiosity about the cat, about curiosity, about the source of the unwanted bits of this and that, have been a great burden to me, and I have tried in my dilatory way to forswear it, with as dismal results as might be expected.

You may wonder why I never upped and went and laid eyes and perhaps hands on the parties responsible for dead dogs, cigarette butts, et. al. My answer is fivefold. Firstly: the identity of these parties is and always was unknown and beyond proof, and fly tipping easily denied. Secondly: while some of the items (the dead dog the exemplar) were repellent, others (rusted cans, unrusted cans) I have come to rely on and would be even more helpless were their source stymied. Thirdly: the walls surrounding the vegetable patch are high enough to threaten barked shins and worse. Fourthly: contradiction of "keep ourselves to ourselves". Fifthly: possibility of physical violence, against which, when directed at my own person, I am opposed. Sixthly: no good would come of it.

I should have made a note of when the television set appeared in the vegetable patch. Had I noted the date, my decline could have been dated from this point, unless it was my earlier attempts to emulate my father in making use of the "this and that" from the vegetable garden, or the sin of curiosity which I must have been riddled with already at birth. What use I planned to make of it (the television set), what excuse I made for lugging it to the parlour, I must have known at one time. I could have had no need for further plant pots for my parsley and chives. As a plant pot the television set was ill-suited, not that that would have prevented me from using it. There had never before been a set in the house. My mother feared one, or my father could not afford one, or else they were both of them too ignorant to think of acquiring one. I remember watching one at the house of a boyhood friend, but neither the names nor faces of any boyhood friends can be dredged up. It is likely I had none, for "keep ourselves to ourselves" was not lightly contradicted. The gist of the thing, the teleological account of the television set, I grasped however dimly and, as it turned out, wrongly in every particular.

Whether I plugged the thing in or not (and it is a moot point since the electricity company would have banished us many years ago), there were immediate stirrings which after some lapse of time and concentration, congealed, smiled, offered a hand at the end of a shirt cuff and pinstriped sleeve, and introduced himself as the authorized representative of a subsidiary of the Mystery Shopping Consortium. To attempt a physical description would disappoint, so I shall refrain.

I had no reason to be surprised. Do not think that I question those things that it is not my business to question (by which I mean everything). Of all those languishing in ignorance of the workings of the television set, I may be the most pitiably green. Any surprise I expressed, one may put down to feebleness of imagination.

Were I less technically inept perhaps I should have expected just such a development. A sickly child, my mother and father kept me away from schools, fearing either the attentions of bullies, malignancies in the ether, or upsetting notions that would bring on my night sweats, I forget which. The curriculum my father devised excluded the woodwork, soldering, hurdling, Bunsen burners, life drawing, and dissection, which boys of stronger constitutions endured. My learning, such as it was, was limited to vocabulary, spelling, and grammar, not on the basis of any practical utility (they have proved to have none, pace my mother's dictum), but because of their safety, and because they were my father's sole area of expertise, an inheritance which now passes to me.

The gist of the matter was, in due course, put across. From what I could gather, though I undoubtedly misunderstood many if not all of my instructions, the Mystery Shopping Consortium wanted to send me certain consumer products. I had been chosen to receive these consumer products (at no cost to myself) on the basis of considerations glossed over entirely by the man whose name I had already forgotten. Assuming my consent (which I neither gave nor withheld), it would be incumbent on me to express my opinions of these products in the form of a brief essay of evaluation. How brief? As brief as I liked or, to put it another way, as long as I liked.

No doubt you will anticipate my objections: paucity (nay, absence) of qualifications; dilatory habits; unsound judgement; inconsistent powers of reasoning; unvaried diet leading to frequent, incapacitating bouts of trapped wind; indecision resulting from stagnant moisture in the temporal lobes; stiffness of the finger joints brought on by excessive penmanship; moral imbecility. All these obstacles and more were that cuffed, cuff-linked, and manicured hand capable of waving away. By some sleight-of-hand which escaped my inattentive gaze, the representative of the authorized subsidiary extracted an object called (on this point alone I am certain) a qwerty. Thick with alphabetically ornamented stalks, the qwerty would pitch in when longhand grew irksome. Other considerations — length, structure, tone, style, language, formatting — that I had already begun to fret over were shrugged off manfully. "All responses are valid," was his maxim. Whether I liked the product, or disliked the product, or was indifferent to the product, whether I at first liked the product and then afterwards disliked it, or initially disliked it, growing later to like it, or any combination of these, I was only obliged to use the product, and comment on it in any way I saw fit.

I paraphrase, perhaps poorly, perhaps unjustly. Seepage of rainwater into the folds of my cerebral cortex (as a child I trespassed hatless into the potato rows) has rendered my long-term memory a pulp. From my mother's precaution of putting hot water bottles under my pillow against chills, my short-term memory has shrunk down like a mohair sweater in a hot wash cycle. There can be little doubt that I misremembered my instructions, forgetting some, mangling others, concocting yet more from random mental secretions. Knowing this, I anticipated the first delivery of consumer products with unfettered terror.

I shudder to think what my mother would have said to the helmeted courier I spied through the best room nets, jamming a leather-gloved thumb into the button of our long defunct doorbell. I have an inkling. His or her (the visor never lifted) insistence that I open the front door trampled willy-nilly on a tradition my father had struggled his entire life to uphold. But somehow the transaction was effected. I was left in possession of a box and an evaluation form, and the courier carried away my name scrawled onto a little grey rectangle of glass.

The box was of a size to have taken a human head comfortably, but contained instead a distressing quantity of bubble wrap. My first thought was that the bubble wrap was the product I was required to evaluate. It was not (on this occasion), but was instead a box of 12 HB pencils.

My swimming goggles and rubber gloves (my father's precaution against accidental gouging and wrist strain) were abandoned in my haste. I wrote, and wrote it all out twice, but the copy is lost, and nothing comes to mind, save the image of me, cheek aside the page, tongue flexing in concentration, scribbling away, imprudently happy. But where that image comes from, I won't try to guess: I haven't looked in a mirror since they were blamed (by my mother) for my dilly-dallying at the bathroom sink and banished (by my father) from the house.

I think I may have recommended the pencils, or it may have been my intention to recommend them, or if I had not intended to recommend them, I may have recommended them by mistake. As it is, the pencils, what's left of them, have been hacked to stubs (and less) by the sharp edge of the least rusted tin I could lay hands on. A sharpener wouldn't have gone amiss, but that wasn't for me to question, and I never mentioned it. Please don't go running away with the notion that I make a habit of questioning things. I certainly never meant to, although I did long for a sharpener, especially after my fingers got so sliced and septic.

Were my poor mother and father alive, shenanigans of this stamp would have been disallowed. They would have had no truck with television sets, to say nothing of authorized subsidiaries. Shenanigans would never have gotten a foot in the door. But when the following Monday rolled around, the courier had wised to the doorbell. There was not even so much as a knock. I found myself face to visor with the courier in my own hallway and, once I had handed over my fair copy, another box was pressed upon me. The words "keep yourself to yourself" rang in my ears, or in their vicinity.

I had been happy with the pencils, and that was, I see now, my greatest error. I should not be surprised if others greater and graver emerge, but no doubt I will (be surprised). Foolishly content, the qwerty was pitched out among the potatoes. Rashly, it would now appear: it has since been colonized by earwigs and their ilk, and may be useless even for parsley and chives. I had a notion that it had unfinished business with the television set, but my half-hearted experiments in that area ("stick to what you know" notwithstanding) gave me headaches and carpet stains.

My unfettered terror in anticipation of the courier was joined by nagging anxiety that my evaluation of the pencils should prove inadequate, which it no doubt was. Daily I expected the representative of the authorized subsidiary, this time to chastise, or berate, whichever is the worse, but the days brought nothing, and in time I was emboldened or bored enough to open the second box.

Again no head, and under the bubble wrap, if I was not (by some chance) mistaken, a telephone of some kind. "Of some kind" because the same boyhood friend (real or otherwise) who had introduced me to the rudiments of the television set, also gave me a nodding acquaintance with these trinkets. Did I dream the father of the house approaching, faceless in my confused mind but competent, terrifyingly competent? Me, lost in foolish pleasure among the injection-moulded soldiers on the carpet? Trapped in a meaty fist, my own father's panicky little voice barely managing to squeak out the humiliating words, repeated for my benefit by booming, manly lungs? Must go home immediately… mother worried half to death… father forced out in his slippers to find a phone booth, and then to find a policeman to instruct him how to use the phone booth?

I shudder to recall it, even at this distance, even if I dreamt it. But besides the enduring shame, I do believe that the telephone had numbers, principally numbers printed onto the buttons, rather than these tiny yellow faces: happy, sad, angry, bored, a few other variations on these which I could not begin to put into words. My fumblings eventually produced a sleepy little face on the grey screen. Another bit of guesswork sent it off to parties unknown. I waited, and watched the blank screen until, many moments later (again, a stab of silly joy) I received a reply: an angry face. This was intoxicating. Immediately I replied: a questioning face, eyebrows raised. My interlocutor replied: happy face. Me: happy face. My interlocutor: happy face. Me: happy face. Interlocutor: angry face. Me: questioning face. Interlocutor: questioning face. Me: bored face. Int'lctr: face asleep. Me: an uncertain, wiggly sad-happy mouth. Int'lctr: ecstatic face.

I continued the conversation (broken only by intermittent periods when I slept) for two days, or what felt like two days. Certainly I remember noticing the red glow of dusk through the net curtains on at least two occasions. After a while I was intrigued to see that the person I was talking to had access to a wider range of little faces than I. There was a manic eyes-blazing face, there was an eyes-but-no-mouth face. There was a simple circle which I thought of as the face turned away from me. Later on there were others, unsettling, disfigured. Try as I might, I could not manipulate the buttons to produce these variants. I will admit some frustration at this, but there was no question of abandoning the conversation, until I began to wonder whether there really was a person on the other end of the conversation. I could think of no way of proving that my telephone did not throw up its responses according to a set pattern, or just at random. And no sooner had this troubling thought occurred than the responses went back to angry, and stayed at angry. Had the device jammed itself on angry, or the person at the other end of the line become permanently enraged with me? Ambiguity has never sat well with me; indigestion and dizziness were the unvarying upshot. This little emoting box joined the television set at the bottom of the garden. Now and again I work up the courage to venture down there and send a little smiley. Every time I do, the angry face comes back within moments, and I retreat, more downcast than ever.

What I handed over to the courier about this miserable episode I cannot recall, if I wrote anything at all. Were the pencils still functional at this time, it is no guarantee that I was in a fit state to compose a review (was I ever?) Nor can I state with any certainty what was in the next box (it wasn't a head). There was, at some point, a single roll of bubble wrap (which I dealt with quite creditably), but that might have been later. There was a small pile of loose, ornamental gravel, possibly intended for an aquarium but, in my limited knowledge of the subject, an inadequate supply. There was an attractive leather box, lined with burgundy velvet, in which was presented six rare varieties of potato, named on miniature silver plaques.

In what order these products arrived I cannot attest. The standard of my reviews varied dramatically, from mediocre, through poor, to very poor. I attacked the potatoes with verve but produced little of lasting value. The gravel found me sorely wanting. With each new delivery, I began to despair (more than was normal) at the prospect of composition. I had nothing to say and was not equipped to say it. Now that the courier had free run of the hallway, there was no getting away from my obligations to the consortium. I begged the courier to desist. I offered chives, parsley, other inducements. Nothing moved the black visor. If I refused to hand over a review, violence was offered, or so I gathered from certain ambiguous gestures of the leather-gloved hands.

It did not seem to matter very much what I wrote. The visor was unperturbed by an A4 of angry or lethargic scribble, and I detected no revulsion at the blood and other fluids which eventually disgraced the printed form in lieu of reasoned arguments and evaluation. Yes, I will admit, I thought I had gotten the upper hand in this business. Kindly parental admonishments were nowhere in my mind. But whether because of my lacklustre replies, or simply out of spite, or for no reason at all, the contents of those boxes worsened.

I record the following products as I recall them (with the proviso that some may be fabrications):

  • The collected works of the Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, printed in yellow ink on lime green paper, and rendered into English with the aid of a Romanian-English dictionary, by a French translator boasting no prior knowledge of either language.
  • A stainless steel device, possibly medical in purpose, sprouting tubes, rubber bulbs, glass gauges, and openings marked "mouth", "ears", "anus", "aux", "DV in 12V", "midi".
  • A large tangle of plastic-covered cabling with no discernable plugs or sockets, possibly forming an extensive loop. My attempts to untangle it were soon abandoned.
  • A device, moulded in red plastic, possibly a child's toy, in which was mounted a circle of cardboard containing twenty-four tiny transparent slides. Through the viewfinder, these slides were resolved into twenty-four three-dimensional images of pigeons in car parks.
  • Two litres of boiling milk, delivered to my door by the courier (was it always the same person?) in a tall, open, glass tankard.
  • Four dark grey, plastic blocks, each about the size of a medium potato, resembling a child's toy. They can be assembled in any of two ways.
  • A craft kit. The lid of the box implies that pictures of waterfalls, rainbows, and sunsets can be created with a little patience and several thousand coloured beads. The glue included in a large, sealed pouch must set eventually, but has so far failed to do so. Whether from accidentally ingesting the beads, or from the fumes of the glue, the accompanying hallucinations (not of waterfalls, etc.) have been relentless.
  • A series of photographs of men and women, of various ages and ethnicities, screaming (or at least pretending to scream) in unbridled fear at some unseen thing, possibly the photographer or something just behind the photographer.
  • A visit from a silent, unsmiling woman who, given her actions once she had entered the house, I must assume was a prostitute.
  • A voucher entitling me to 30% off the cost of a year's membership of the Mystery Shopping Consortium. Worrying in itself, as I had been led to believe (I may have got the wrong end of the stick) that all this sorry carry-on was at least being provided at no cost to myself.

I told myself that nothing would induce me to sign up for any more of these torments, and that the moment the opportunity presented itself, I would put in a request to be removed from the programme. I thought of my chives and my parsley (dried up and yellow now), and (to a lesser extent) of my poor mother and father, and wished that I could go back to worrying about what the neighbours might or might not have thrown over the garden fence instead of what unpleasant surprise might await me next in a swathe of bubble wrap. But whether by the courier or the prostitute (assuming they were distinct persons), or by myself under the influence of either the hallucinogenic glue or the ideology of E.M. Cioran, the voucher was successfully completed and sent off. The next delivery contained a letter congratulating me on my decision and included my introductory offer, six dozen jars of pitted green olives. A head would have been preferable.

I squat here in the potato rows, typing all this out into the qwerty (the pencils long ago lost between floorboards or eaten by rats, or by me, I forget). Rereading my testimony, it seems worse than even I had anticipated; I suspect that the film of slug trails across the screen, and the pools of brown water sloshing between letters, have caused some deterioration in style and substance. This will be my last review — I can feel the chills creeping up from my benumbed buttocks to my benumbed heart. My mother warned me against catching my death of cold. I have caught it, or it has caught me — the causal chain is unclear. Presently I must face the olives. I shall not survive them, I think. If I can keep my fingers tapping long enough to complete the review, I shall, unless I cannot bring myself to. No good will have come of it, in any case.

John Greenwood is the co-editor of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction, where most of his previously published writing can be found online. His major influences are books he has heard of but may never get round to reading. He works as a bookseller and lives in Birmingham, England.